Editorial: How to Deal with a Blue Christmas

Photo by Cody Chan on Unsplash

Christmas can be a lonely and depressing time for many people in today’s society. The sometimes-overly-forced seasonal emphasis on good cheer, conviviality, and harmonious holiday gatherings with friends and family can often bring those people like me, with less than Instagram-perfect lives, down. And yes, I am one of those people who sometimes struggles at Christmastime.

Nika Talaj made the following wise observation on a recent thread in the official Second Life user forums:

SL is all about longing … often for things we lost in RL (real life). Longing for the body we lost years ago, longing for the dance moves we don’t have, longing for the perfect partner, longing for our own home. And Christmas, for many of us, also brings up feelings of loss and longing.

So, what can you do if you have a case of the Christmas blues? Here are 14 tips from the Health.com website:

  • Make plans ahead of time: Spend some time figuring out how to take care of yourself during this time, and be sure to schedule those activities.
  • Avoid family conflict as much as possible
  • Focus on the good: Especially the good people in your real and virtual lives.
  • Forget about trying to be perfect
  • Learn how to grieve: This is particularly important if this is your first Christmas without a loved one. Talk about your feelings or reach out to support groups in your community.
  • Don’t skimp on sleep
  • Limit social media consumption: Social media, where everybody seems to be having a better time than you, can often increase feelings of sadness and loneliness. Get off Facebook and other social media sites, or limit their use over the holidays.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it: here’s a list of helpful resources.
  • Make exercise a priority
  • Consider your light exposure: In the Northern hemisphere, especially if you live closer to the North Pole as I do, the lack of daylight can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If you think you may be suffering from SAD, talk to your doctor about treatment options. I have a SAD lamp which I use when I am feeling depressed.
  • Make other plans: Deliberately plan and do some non-holiday things.
  • Focus on what matters: It’s not all about the Christmas presents.
  • Don’t binge on food or alcohol
  • Cut back on your commitments: It’s OK to say “no” once in a while.

I hope that this list of tips is helpful to you this holiday season. Please feel free to leave a comment if you have any other tips you want to share, thanks!

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UPDATED! Social VR in 2019: A Perimortem Or a Call to Arms?

There is hope amidst the general despair in social VR…
(Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash)

This is the first chance I have had to find a little peace and quiet, decompress, and meditate on the events of the past couple of days, and indeed the events of the past twelve months. It’s been a rocky year.

A year ago, things seemed much more hopeful for social VR and virtual worlds. High Fidelity was hosting numerous splashy events, with hundreds of avatars in attendance. New and better features were continually being added to Sansar, which was also experiencing record attendance at big events like the Monstercat launch. Prospects seemed so bright as we entered 2019.

And then, things started to go wrong, or perhaps more accurately, stubbornly refused to go right. High Fidelity abruptly switched direction away from consumer use in an ultimately futile attempt to pursue the business market, and now the company has announced it is essentially shutting down its flagship platform in the new year. Linden Lab, despite assurances earlier in the year that it would be “business as usual” while they were still trying to build an audience for Sansar, suddenly laid off many of its talented staff working on the project (and at the worst possible time: halfway through a complete redesign of their human avatars). Even worse, LL has had to back out of a recent disastrous decision to replace the popular Atlas of worlds with the Nexus and the Codex, only after many users threatened to pull their worlds in protest. 

After the bruising year that has befallen Linden Lab’s Sansar project and Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity, an observer might be forgiven for wondering why any company would choose to embark on building a metaverse at all. In a recent blogpost, Philip blames problems with the current state of VR hardware for HiFi’s failure to thrive, but that does not absolve him of his tactical decision to go all-in on virtual reality, at a time when the majority of users were still in desktop mode (and likely will be for quite some time). Ebbe Altberg similarly gambled that VR would take off much sooner than it has, a gamble that he (and frankly all of us) bet the house on. A bet we appear to be losing.

In one of my darker moments of gallows humour this week, while writing the blogpost about the demise of High Fidelity, the thought occurred to me: that I might be the one blogger who documents both the rise and the fall of social VR. Was all this just a fad? Will virtual reality continue to be a niche, unprofitable market? Will High Fidelity and Linden Lab be the first of many metaverse-building companies to downsize, backtrack, and even fold in 2020?

In 2020 all eyes will be on Facebook as it launches its latest and greatest attempt at social VR, Facebook Horizon. Will Facebook be able to leverage its existing reach (and its deep pockets) to make social VR a viable proposition? If mighty Facebook fails, despite using all the powerful tools and tectics at its disposal, then perhaps that will be clearest signal yet that social VR (at least, as it is currently being conceived and marketed) is not what consumers want or need. 

We could land up back at the drawing board, a discomforting thought. Or, perhaps, one or more companies and/or communities of users will bring some outside-the-box thinking that is sorely needed to kickstart this market and bring it out of its comatose state. 

Look at Mozilla Hubs. It runs on just about every single piece of hardware you can throw at it, from high-end VR headsets to the cheapest cellphones. It’s so dead simple that you don’t even need an account to use it! Yet despite its limited features, I have had some truly wonderful meetings and experiences in Hubs this year. 

Look at Cryptovoxels, a one-man labour of love that started off with slow, organic growth, and is now growing and thriving, with an invested community and a thriving art scene. 

Look at NeosVR, which is probably unique among all social VR platforms in that a majority of its users are actually in VR headsets (a claim that even VRChat cannot yet make), and which is doing some truly amazing and innovative work that is attracting notice.

Look at ENGAGE, which is already profitably using social VR to create educational experiences for universities, with innovative features such as three-dimensional video recording of lessons.

This is not the time for a perimortem or a postmortem; it is time for a call to arms. A time to put our brains together and come up with new ideas and approaches, new niches and markets for this amazing technology. Yes, there will be failures and missteps, but there will likely be more successes like Mozilla Hubs, Cryptovoxels, NeosVR, and ENGAGE.

This is not a time to give up hope. It is a time to keep going, keep pushing, and keep trying new things. To keep moving forward, despite setbacks. 

UPDATE Dec. 13th, 2019: Will Burns (whom I have written about before on this blog) had this characteristically blunt, I-told-you-so response to this editorial on his Twitter:

He said:

Call to arms. They wouldn’t have a problem if they actually understood the underlying mechanics and causality for making a social VR platform. What we’re seeing isn’t the failure of social VR but instead the unmasking of all the pretenders who bullshitted competency.

UPDATED! Editorial: Decentraland Is Paying for Contest Entries (And Why This May Backfire)

On Nov. 8th, I wrote about the Decentraland Builder Contest, which is currently underway and runs until Dec. 15th, 2019. You can refer to my previous blogpost for all the details on the contest, or you can check the Decentraland website.

One thing that I did not know about the contest is that each accepted entry will receive 200 MANA, which works out to about US$5.00 at the current exchange rates. I understand that you can submit up to 20 entries per person, which means that a user who submits the maximum number of entries earns 4,000 MANA, worth about US$100. (This information comes from a recent blogpost on the DCLPlazas blog, which is a good source of news about Decentraland.)

This reminds me of how High Fidelity was offering US$300 per accepted entry to an avatar contest at one of its final big events (this was before its abrupt pivot earlier this year to promote business use of HiFi for remote workteams, and an attempt to rein in runaway costs). For a while there, High Fidelity was spending money like a drunken sailor, and I am starting to wonder if the same thing is starting to happen over at Decentraland, which has been extremely generous with its contest prizes this year.

I have absolutely no problem with large cash prizes for contest winners, and I know that contests encourage the creation of good content, which drives usage of the platform. But in my opinion, paying for every single contest entry is only going to encourage a flood of people gaming the system with the maximum number of contest entries, just to collect the most money they can and then cash it out.

This is essentially bribing people to use your platform, which means that as soon as the money stops flowing, fickle users, who were there only because they were paid, will abandon the platform (which is exactly what happened to High Fidelity).

One of the things that is starting to concern me about blockchain-based virtual worlds like Decentraland is how they seem to encourage a rather mercenary approach to their in-world economy. It doesn’t help matters that land is such an expensive commodity in DCL, which almost makes it imperative to be able to use it to generate revenue. (A year ago, DCL even launched virtual land mortgages, for those who could not afford to pay for their LAND up front.)

Want to play a hunting game? You’ve got to pay for the arrows. Want your choice of avatar username? You’ve got to buy one. One person on the official Decentraland Discord server recently asked whether they would be allowed to erect a paywall in front of a constructed scene, so you couldn’t even look at it without paying. Everybody seems out to make a buck.

The blockchain/cryptocurrency community is a world apart, and most current Decentraland users and investors do not see this sort of setup as strange. But I wonder how well this will play out with the casual, non-crypto visitors which DCL needs to attract in order to survive and thrive long-term. Will potential users be put off by having to pay for everything, even buying their username? I guess we’ll find out once the doors open to the general public.

UPDATE Dec. 6th, 2019: Ari Meilich, the Project Lead at Decentraland, says:

The idea behind subsidizing content creation is trying to crack the chicken and egg problem. A lot of people have been building in the absence of incentives, but other are more likely to create better scenes provided they receive tokens, particularly before we have launched and there isn’t an immediate flux of users. In the previous contests it has worked out great. This contest will be the last one before launch, Ryan. And it’s looking like there’ll be enough interactive content to put us in a good position to open the world publicly soon 🙂

Thanks, Ari!

Editorial: “Look at Your Life, Look at Your Choices”

The universe seems to be telling me that I need to look at my life and my choices:

While getting dressed for work today, I ripped the only wearable pair of pants I had for work, which necessitated an emergency trip to the local Mr. Big & Tall (and yes, I’m both) for several new pair of dress slacks. And, to add insult to injury, I discovered that I have gone up a pant size.

Despite the lovingly-crafted, beautifully-worded mission statement I wrote when I went on a Seven Habits of Highly Effective People bender several years ago, my life is still seriously out-of-balance. I spend too much time working (both at my paying job and on this blog), and too little time attending to all the other things that need my attention.

I need to haul my raggedy ass back to Weight Watchers before I gain even more weight. I need to clean my Red Cross disaster area of an apartment before the dust bunnies attack me. And yes, I need to take a serious look at my life, and a hard look at the choices I am making.

I’m just a stupid bitch. And it’s not like I am lacking in sassy gay friends, in either my real life or my virtual one 😉

What I do need to do (and let’s face it, I’m not alone in this) is listen to my inner Sassy Gay Friend…and become my own Sassy Gay Friend.